Buttons are ubiquitous, and most won’t think twice about the small garment essentials. But today, most buttons are made from plastic and most are not recycled, which means that they to pose an environmental challenge. Thankfully, there is a group that is thinking about how to make buttons and plastic clothing features more sustainable, and one solution lies with 3D printing and injection molding.
The group in question consists of Fishy Filaments, a Cornwall-based company that produces 3D printing filaments from recycled fishing nets; Cornish surf brand Finisterre; Niall Jones, a student from Falmouth University; and AddiFab, a Danish specialist in Freeform Injection Molding (FIM). Together the partners have aimed to pursue localized production for garment essentials, like buttons and toggles, using available materials and operating within Finisterre’s sustainable supply chain policies.
From the outset, the joint team wanted to find a solution to the problem of buttons. Because, though they are small, up to 50,000 tonnes of buttons are produced a year, and most (about 60%) are made in Qiaotau, China, which means that transportation emissions add up. Most buttons are also made from Nylon 6, and the companies report that the production of the material alone could produce nearly half a million tonnes of CO2 each year.
Wanting to produce its buttons in a more sustainable way, Finisterre and Falmouth student Niall Jones teamed up to find a solution. Fishy Filaments, a local company producing 3D printing filaments and injection molded plastics made from 100% recycled Marine Nylon, was eager to become involved. All of Fishy Filaments’ materials are made from end-of-life fishing nets used by the MSC Certified Cornish Hake fishery, which are processed into pellet form before being made into either filament or molding pellets.
Jones came up with a series of new button designs, with style and ergonomics in mind, which were prototyped using laser cutting and trialled. After trials, one particular design stood out: a button with a tab that made it easier to fasten and unfasten with cold or less dextrous hands. The buttons were then 3D printed using Fishy Filaments’ materials, however the finish was not high quality enough to be a viable solution for a professional clothing line.
At this stage, the button design was brought to AddiFab, a Denmark-based company that has pioneered a hybrid AM-injection molding approach. The process, called FIM, begins by 3D printing a sacrificial mold and then uses it in an injecting molding press, resulting in mass produceable designs that have geometries only 3D printing can achieve. This approach enabled Jones to achieve injection molded quality for the buttons, while still using Fishy Filaments’ recycled materials and without having to produce an expensive metal mold. Using 3D printing to create the molds also has the advantage of being able to produce multiple variations of the button design for personal branding opportunities.
In his study, Jones analyzes the carbon footprint of the buttons made from the recycled nylon material: “Fishy Filaments’ Marine Nylon only has between 2-3% of the environmental impacts that virgin nylon does,” he writes. “To put this another way; for every 1 virgin nylon button made, we could make 46 buttons with Fishy Filaments Marine Nylon before we hit the same environmental footprint. 1 virgin nylon button versus 5 shirts-worth of Fishy Filaments’ buttons. That is just the manufacturing process, not considering the landfill avoided, nets not properly refused or transported around the world to other recyclers.”
Going forward, Jones hopes that the more sustainable buttons will attract the interest of other UK clothing brands. The full project can be found here.